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HPV test raises hope of cutting cervical cancer risks

The head physician at Tampere University Hospital said she has hopes that - like polio - cervical cancer will be completely eliminated in Finland.

Gunekologisia tutkimuksia.
File photo of gynaecologist performing a cervical smear or pap test. Image: AOP

A relatively new method that screens for human papillomavirus has been found to be more effective than traditional pap tests, according to experts at Tampere University Hospital.

A Pap test has been the traditional screening method used to find potentially precancerous and cancerous processes in the cervix, but an HPV test that's increasingly being used in Finland has been found to be more effective in preventing the disease.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in Finland.

Because the illness can potentially cause several types of cancers, the country implemented a vaccination programme aimed at fighting the disease in 2013.

Since then, girls between 11-12 years of age have received the HPV vaccine, a measure that is expected to significantly reduce the country's cervical cancer rate.

HPV screening 70% more effective than Pap tests

Earlier this year, the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) recommended that the vaccination regime also be extended to boys.

If that happens, Johanna Mäenpää, professor and chief physician at University of Tampere and Tampere University Hospital, said that cervical cancer could be eliminated entirely in Finland, in the same way that polio was.

"But that won't likely happen during my lifetime," Mäenpää told Yle.

Tampere began offering the HPV test in 2012. Mäenpää said that the results have been good, saying the screenings have significantly helped to identify pre-cancers, compared to Pap tests. She said the new method also helps to track cervical cancer risks.

"We have calculated that the HPV test is 70 percent more effective than the Pap test, and that's a lot. If an HPV test turns out negative it is unlikely that cancer will develop within the next six to seven years," Mäenpää said.

The HPV tests are increasingly being used outside of Tampere as well. It has been taken into use in Turku and across south-western Finland, and also recently in the capital region.

Test increasingly used in Finland

Clinics at HUSLAB laboratories in southern Finland's Uusimaa and Kymenlaakso regions generally use the HPV tests to screen women above the age of 30 and the traditional Pap tests for younger patients.

This practice is due to how common HPV is in younger people. Usually the disease clears up on its own, without treatment, according to the lab.

Starting this year HUSLAB is offering women aged 25-65 screenings at five-year intervals.

Every year around 165 women are stricken with cervical cancer, most of them between the ages of 30-40. The disease has a 30 percent fatality rate.

Initial symptoms of cervical cancer - most commonly bleeding after intercourse - generally show up after a tumour has already developed.

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